We must loosen poverty's grip on Black, Asian and ethnic minority people

For those already constrained by poverty, the added pressure of the economic and health consequences of COVID-19 has become a double whammy.

The pandemic has hit those in poverty hardest. As it has spread through our communities, it's become clear that the effects are not equal.

Before coronavirus, 14.5 million people in the UK were caught in poverty. These people, already held back, have borne the brunt of the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, with Black, Asian and minority ethnic households particularly hard hit. Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups have been particularly affected by the economic effects of coronavirus, as well as badly affected by the disease itself. It is vital to understand the causes of these injustices.

Action on racial inequality was already long overdue; with additional pressure from the inequities of the pandemic, we now need an urgent response so we can forge a better collective future. It is important to focus on the people worst affected, in both health and economic terms, so that we can reshape our economy to achieve broader prosperity.

Before coronavirus, Black, Asian and ethnic minority workers were more likely to experience poverty while in work and were over-represented in lower-paid positions in low-paid sectors. This meant that the risk of in-work poverty was higher for Black, Asian and ethnic minority workers than White workers. Zooming in further, the in-work poverty rate is highest for Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers (34%), meaning they entered the crisis much more susceptible to its effects. It’s simply wrong that certain groups have to face this inequity on top of pressure from the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic has put many jobs at risk, and using a Pre-Vaccine Job Risk Index, JRF has estimated that Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers are one of the highest groups at risk of job loss in the coming wave of unemployment. Worryingly, these groups also have the lowest average hourly pay (£10.58) amongst all other groups, but especially compared to their White British counterparts (£12.49).

Compounding the pressures of low pay, Black, Asian and ethnic minority workers in particular have to bear the perpetual threat of job insecurity. In fact, they are most at risk of losing their job. In a society like ours this is simply not right. It is vital the Government focuses targeted action for these groups, to ensure they’re able to have a good job to escape in-work poverty.

Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers are more likely to work in catering, restaurants, and related businesses, as well as in taxi driving and chauffeuring. These employment patterns make people more at risk of losing earnings or jobs during the coronavirus outbreak. Such businesses are more heavily impacted by public health restrictions and people working in them are less likely to be able to work from home due to the nature of the work. Targeted action on job security is needed to prevent more people from being pulled into poverty.

It is a deep injustice that workers from some minority ethnic backgrounds have been the hardest hit. At the start of the crisis, the Government acted decisively, and with compassion when it introduced a range of policies, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). However, many of the people trapped in poverty’s tightest grip have not been able to benefit from the scheme. At the beginning of the pandemic, Black, Asian, and ethnic minority workers were 13% less likely to be furloughed, but 14% more likely to be made unemployed.

Those attempting to get back into work face a tough challenge. When reviewing claimant count data by local authorities, the top five authorities with more than 30 claimants unemployed per vacancy are all in London (Brent, Haringey, Barking and Dagenham, Lambeth, and Greenwich), with high populations of Black, Asian, and ethnic minority households. People living here will face a very competitive jobs market as the country recovers. They are more likely to report a loss of income, and report that they expect to be worse off next month compared with people in White households (25% and 19% respectively) (JRF, 2021).

We can right these wrongs, but our Government must act decisively by taking the following actions:

  • We need to improve earnings for low-income working families. This will disproportionately benefit ethnic minorities. Too many Black, Asian and ethnic minority workers are stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs without opportunity to progress. We need to see measures that will help people find good jobs above the Living Wage.
  • We need as many people as possible to be in good jobs. It’s unacceptable that Black, Asian and ethnic minority households are more likely to experience job precarity and insecurity during the pandemic. We need to see action to retrain workers and create good quality new jobs.
  • It is imperative that the Government keeps the £20 a week increase to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit. It’s also important to extend this lifeline to people on legacy benefits. Our social security system must help keep people afloat, during the pandemic and in our recovery.